Hamas: Heavy on the Fire, Light on the Cease

Gaza paid a heavy price over the past month, and Hamas must produce an achievement that is great enough to justify the loss in life and property.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian firefighters put out a fire in a car, which witnesses said was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 9, 2014.
Palestinian firefighters put out a fire in a car, which witnesses said was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 9, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Any attempt to sum up the war, not to mention declarations of victory by the Israeli side, have turned out to be premature. Palestinian militant organizations in the Gaza Strip resumed firing rockets at Israel on Friday morning, at the end of a 72-hour cease-fire. But the rules have changed: This time it is the smaller factions in the Strip, and not Hamas, that have claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, which have been concentrated on communities that are adjacent to the Gaza Strip. So far, Israel has responded with relatively focused air strikes that target launchers.

When Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turjeman spoke midweek about restoring security to border-area communities with the suspension of the fighting, their remarks were directed mainly at members of area kibbutzim who were still unsure about whether the time had come to return to their homes. The Israel Defense Forces destroyed all the tunnels it knew about, but in its confident declarations the army failed to sufficiently consider the old threat of projectiles — rockets, and especially mortar shells.

As of last night rocket fire targeting central Israel had not been renewed, but the situation near the border with the Gaza Strip was very different. There, people have just 15 seconds after the sirens sound to find shelter, and Israel’s anti-missile systems are irrelevant when it comes to mortar shells.

Figures in the IDF are convinced that Hamas was behind the rockets fired over the weekend.

Eight people were killed or injured in Israel Air Force strikes in the Gaza Strip. In an additional strike, on a mosque in a refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip that Israel says was being used to store weapons, one person was killed.

When Gazan casualties from Israeli air strikes mounted over the weekend, rockets were fired from the Strip at Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon as well. Yesterday Hamas reiterated its threat to fire at Tel Aviv, although the organization apparently has fewer mid-range rockets now and it is trying to husband its capabilities in this range.

Israel interprets Hamas’ decision to begin firing rockets again as the result of frustration over the slow progress in the Cairo cease-fire talks. Gaza paid a heavy price in this war, and Hamas must produce an achievement that is great enough to justify the human losses and the destruction endured by the civilian population of Gaza over the past month.

Israel has said it would not negotiate under fire. The Israeli delegation left Cairo early Friday, before the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip resumed. For now, contacts are continuing by phone, and when the rockets stop the Israeli negotiators will return to Cairo.

Hamas says it will not back down from its core demands: not only the reopening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt but also the expansion of traffic through the crossings with Israel, the opening of a seaport and airport and the releasing of Palestinian prisoners from the Shalit swap who were rearrested by Israel in the West Bank after the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.

Israel will permit the transfer of funds into Gaza for the payment of Hamas government employees and the rebuilding of the territory. It will also discuss easing certain restrictions at its border crossings, and Egypt will presumably relieve somewhat the bottleneck at its Rafah crossing. But Israel will not discuss a seaport or safe passage from Gaza to the West Bank.

Together with Egypt, and with Hamas’ unwilling consent, Israel, which was utterly opposed to the Palestinian unity government, is now encouraging the involvement of hundreds of members of the Palestinian Authority security forces at Gaza’s crossings into Israel.

But these issues are far from resolution and so despite Egyptian pressure, there is no certainty now that the cease-fire will be renewed. Israeli response to rocket fire, for now, has been limited to air strikes, but there are still soldiers stationed near the border with the Strip that could presumably be deployed if needed.

But Israel has conveyed to Hamas over the past few days such a clear distaste for continued fighting that it is not surprising to find the organization has gone back to testing Israel’s patience. Hamas is also trying to create a formula by which firing on the communities near the Gaza border is almost acceptable to Israel, while firing on central Israel would draw a harsher response.

Why does Hamas continue fighting (albeit via proxies), despite Gazans’ fears that continued rocket fire will delay the start of the long process of reconstruction? Presumably, because Hamas believes the price of a full cease-fire without real achievements is higher than continuing to fight.

Hamas’ strategy of standing strong against Israel, and chalking up achievements in people’s minds by the use of attack tunnels and extracting IDF casualties in fighting and to a lesser extent by rocket fire, have not changed despite Israel’s extensive air and ground assaults on the Gaza Strip.

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